Take a Time Out for Safety

By Ron Hanson, CHST
Vice President, Safety Management Group

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It’s fourth down and two with less than a minute to go in a closely fought championship game. Twenty seconds in the huddle just isn’t going to be enough time to analyze the options, consider the defense, and play “what if,” so the quarterback wisely makes the familiar “T” gesture, and the official signals a time out.

Even though the quarterback is an all-pro and his teammates are among the best, even though his coach is considered to be one of the game’s most brilliant strategists, even though he’s backed by a roster of analysts and specialists, and even though he feels the pressure from 50,000 screaming spectators, he recognizes the value of stopping to collect everyone’s thoughts and make sure they choose the right course of action.

The same thing happens before a surgeon reaches for his scalpel. No matter how many times the surgeon may have performed the procedure, he and his team stop to make sure everyone knows what’s going to happen and has everything needed for every contingency. In fact, the surgeon’s “time out” is mandated by healthcare’s national accreditation body.

As fans, we place a significant amount of trust in the quarterback’s judgment. As patients, we place our lives in the surgeon’s hands. If they’re willing to take a time out to ensure that they’re ready to proceed and do the right thing, shouldn’t we?

That’s why safety-focused contractors now require “time outs” of their own on worksites. Although they’re usually referred to with names such as “pre-shift briefing,” the concept is still the same. Before the actual work begins, everyone involved takes a moment to review what needs to be done, consider the hazards and how they can best be minimized, verify that all the proper equipment is on hand (including what might be needed in an emergency situation), and ask questions to clarify anything that isn’t clear.

These time outs serve a different purpose than the “toolbox talks” at which employees review specific aspects of safety related to familiar tasks. While toolbox talks are typically held weekly, time outs tend to take place at the beginning of a shift or when a new task is started. They also tend to be more informal.

The information needed for time outs can usually be found in the project’s Job Safety Analysis (JSA), where all the tasks related to a particular project are detailed, as are the hazards associated with each task. A thorough JSA also spells out the steps that should be taken or equipment that should be used to reduce the inherent risks. In cases where a JSA is not available, the site supervisor should rely on experience and common sense to start the discussion about the potential hazards. That can also be useful if changing weather conditions are an issue. After all, we usually remember that ice is dangerous after we slip the first time in winter.

Time outs may not be as formal as other safety briefings, but it’s still a good idea to document them thoroughly. In addition to the date and time, include the issues that were discussed and list the workers who were on hand. If the project is inspected by safety officials, that documentation will send a clear message that safety is taken seriously.

None of us would want a quarterback to make a bad decision just to speed up the game, and we wouldn’t want a surgeon to cut first and think about what he’s doing later. Even when we’re in a hurry to wrap up a project, we’d be wise to remember those examples and take a time out to ensure everyone’s safety.

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